Monday 24 July 2017

England bemoan a lack of midfield quality

Harry Kane scores England’s last-gasp equaliser against Scotland but their new captain’s goals failed to mask the team’s shortcomings. Photo: Reuters
Harry Kane scores England’s last-gasp equaliser against Scotland but their new captain’s goals failed to mask the team’s shortcomings. Photo: Reuters

Jason Burt

Gareth Southgate had just explained how England had to get better, how they must learn to "see out games like that", how Germany had "hardly conceded" a free-kick in the final third of the pitch on their way to winning the last World Cup, never mind two in three minutes as his panic-stricken team had done to give away two goals against Scotland before scrambling a chaotic draw.

And then the England manager admitted it.

"There's no one else," Southgate said when asked about the apparent dearth of exactly the kind of controlling - and creative - central midfielder England require to guide games like this raucous World Cup qualifier away to Scotland to a more positive conclusion.

Southgate praised the performance of the industrious Jake Livermore, but can he really be the answer? He also mentioned Eric Dier, who played alongside the West Bromwich Albion midfielder at Hampden Park.

"We've obviously gone into this game without Jack (Wilshere), (Jordan) Henderson, (Danny) Drinkwater, (Fabian) Delph," Southgate said.

"There's no one else. You are talking about (Michael) Carrick and (Gareth) Barry, so that is the concern in terms of the numbers of English players in the Premier League and that is part of the challenge.

"In terms of the task that we have got, that bit can't be underestimated, but we have to hope there are some young players in the U-21s and U-20s who can add to that. We have got talent coming through and they need opportunities."

Wilshere should have been the one, but ravaged by injuries and, let's be honest, a lack of discipline and drive, the 25-year-old has lost his way.

Outstanding

It is two years ago this week, in fact, that he was scoring two outstanding goals away to Slovenia, as he helped England qualify for Euro 2016.

Delph is up for sale at Manchester City and, while Henderson would come back into the England side if fit, there are not a lot of options beyond him, as Southgate admitted.

Drinkwater? The Leicester City midfielder would also have been included, but always appears to be unavailable after being cut from the Euro 2016 squad.

It is a concern. It is, in fact, the weakest part of Southgate's squad in terms of depth of talent. Livermore is limited and while Dier has impressed as a holding midfielder - although he was poor against Scotland - he does not pass the ball well enough to be entrusted to do more than that.

This is where the control comes in. Where is the English player close to Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Marco Verratti or Thiago Alcántara?

"At 1-0 the challenge is to see games like that out or finish them with a second goal, and that highlighted an area we have to get better at," Southgate said.

"Part of what we have to do is to make good decisions when teams come at us and throw the ball forward and put us under pressure.

"I am not standing here saying we have not got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I have to focus on the actions of the team coming back from adversity."

England did that with captain Harry Kane's 93rd-minute equaliser and it is understandable that Southgate focused on the comeback.

However, he also conceded that their "decision-making under pressure, calmness, focus" has to get better.

These are the qualities England need at major tournaments and have so painfully lacked.

They remain unbeaten in Group F and with four matches to go should see through qualification for Russia next year.

Now they prepare to face France in tomorrow's friendly in Paris, for which Joe Hart - who is more vulnerable than ever as the first-choice goalkeeper with Jack Butland fit again - has been replaced in a pre-planned decision.

While Scotland manager Gordon Strachan hailed Leigh Griffiths' two free-kicks as the "best-ever" scored by his country, there is no doubt Hart could have done better, certainly with the second goal when he again showed the mental fragility that frequently affects him.

Southgate was right in declaring that neither free-kick should have been conceded and it did not help England's cause that neither Gary Cahill nor Chris Smalling were dominant.

Both made mistakes, unforced errors and panicky clearances in what was a low-grade encounter, until it burst into life with the flurry of goals.

If Scotland had lost, Strachan would probably have stepped down as manager.

Instead he was close to achieving his best result in the job, as Griffiths' first strikes for Scotland overturned a 70th-minute goal by substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon should have done better with that and also with the cross from another substitute, Raheem Sterling, that was met on the volley by Kane for England's injury-time equaliser.

It was exciting and explosive in the final 25 minutes, and especially those last six. But it was also, for any team with pretensions to do well at a tournament, out of control. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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